That was his name almost from the start. His real name was William but it didn’t stick. We called him Wiley because he was a Wiley, the visceral embodiment of the word, a coil of instinct and action.
He was the first kid in the neighborhood to master the ollie trick on his skateboard and the first to taunt gravity with double somersaults on the trampoline. I can still see him high up in the air, spinning and laughing.
So when I found him in the den that day, still as air, I knew something was up. He was sitting on the edge of the sofa near the bookcase with the book open on his lap, fingering a corner of the glossy page as if to turn it. He kept staring down, not noticing as I came up to him, his tendril-blonde bangs veiling his expression. The picture was upside down from where I stood, but I knew what it was the moment I saw it. That gave me two things to marvel at in one day: Wiley sitting motionless for longer than 30 seconds, and Wiley enthralled by a picture that had cast the same spell on me when I was his age.
“What is this?” he asked, still not raising his eyes.
“It’s a picture.”
He looked up at me.
“But what is it?”
I sat down on the couch next to him and tried to recall as much as I could. Wiley skimmed his fingers over it slowly, starting at the top right corner and moving toward the center, his fingertips tracing the outline of the man standing in the bow, preparing to lunge down with his spear, then to the black sailor standing just behind him, one arm out as if balancing himself in the pitch of the boat, and finally straight down to the roiling water and the shark with its dilated eyes and jagged mouth.
“It’s a famous painting,” I said, “by a guy named John Singleton Copley.”
“Where’s he from?”
“England. But he came here to America.”
“The 18th Century.”
He pointed to some text under the picture. It said Watson and the Shark.
“That’s the title,” I said, “of the painting.”
His fingertips went from the shark’s mouth to the boy, who was on his back in the water, long light hair splayed out, his right arm reaching up toward the men in the boat, eyes fixed and stunned, his body floating not so much in water but suspended in a moment’s terror fixed in eternity.
“How old is he?”
“Older than you,” I said. “Maybe 13 or 14.”
“Where is this?”
“A harbor,” I said. “I think in Cuba.”
“Where’s his swimsuit?”
“Didn’t have ’em back then, so a lot of people swam that way.”
He stopped with the questions for a few moments and kept staring down at the picture, at the boy. I knew he had another question, the question, the one that had fascinated me back in the day. But he didn’t ask. At least not yet.
He’d found the book, called 18th Century Perspectives, on the shelves where Seth kept most of his art volumes, just below the rows that contained my books. He was at that age. The snooping age. I wondered if it was a sign of things to come that Wiley was leaning toward the visual and not the printed word, if Seth’s artist genes were winning out on some molecular battlefield where the outcome had been wired at the point of conception.
Wiley’s fingers drifted back up to the boat. Two men were leaning over the starboard side, attempting to reach Watson, their hands just inches away from him.
“Did this really happen?” Wiley asked.
“Yep. All based on a true story.”
And then he asked the question.
“So what happened? To the boy? Did the shark eat him?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
“I’m pretty sure they got him out before anything bad happened.”
“But do you know? For sure?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
Wiley looked at me for a few more moments, dissatisfied with my answer. He was still at that age when absolute certainty was expected from adults. He took another long look at the picture, at the beseeching boy, the lunging shark, the roiling dark sea, the sheer intensity of fate compressed within the four corners of the page. He said something so quietly I couldn’t hear.
“You have to find out,” he said.
“Find out what?”
“Find out for sure,” Wiley said. “If they saved him.”
He closed the book and handed it to me.
“I will,” I said.
“Of course,” I said.
“I bet they saved him,” he said. “The men in the boat. They’re so close to getting him. Their hands are so close.”
They allowed visitors into the residential section every day, between 10 and 4, but I’d only been back there once, on the first day. Seth preferred meeting me in the sun parlor. Maybe it cheered him up. It was light and airy, a long, narrow room with big windows facing a small wooded lot. There were five little tables and three small bookcases stuffed with books and board games. There was only one small cluster of visitors, seated at a table to my left. I automatically turned and took the table to the far right. Seth liked to be as far away from other people as possible.
I sat and waited, staring out the window at the trees. The receptionist had buzzed his room when I signed in. It would take about 10 minutes for him to appear, carrying his sketch pad and wearing a brown cardigan sweater, even in the summer, to cover the inside of his arms.
When Seth came in I concentrated on keeping a neutral expression. It was important, because my reaction every time I first saw him was disappointment. He always looked the same: head tilted back, mouth slightly parted, eyes a bit wider than they should be, the look of someone poised to take a blow.
I stood up when he reached the table and gave him a kiss. After he carefully placed his sketch pad on the table, we sat down. He looked into my face, but not into my eyes. After we settled in, we held hands across the little table. He glanced around the room, out the window and finally back to me. I waited for him to speak.
“School,” he said.
“School. Is he ready?”
“It’s July, Seth,” I said.
Seth considered that, looking out at the trees. Maybe he was searching for telltale specks of color for proof that I was lying. I always had the feeling he didn’t quite believe anything I said.
“Right,” he said, straightening up. “Of course.”
He sat staring at me, through me. I stared back, memorizing the details of his light blue eyes, the rainbow-like flare of the pupillary margins, the anterior surface. Seth had told me the names long ago. He always drew the eyes with an eerie precision. Get the eyes right, and the rest will follow. That’s what he’d always said.
“Did you draw anything?”
I’d been asking the same question for weeks. He carried the sketchbook everywhere, just like before, but now it was just a reflex. Every time I opened it, all I saw was blank pages.
I looked at him, blinked.
“You have?” I said. “You drew?”
“Yes,” he repeated.
I didn’t move.
“Can I see?”
The little cluster of people on the other side of the sun porch rose from their table and filed out. Seth stared at them. When they were gone he pushed the sketchbook across the table.
The first few pages were blank. The third page had two gently curving parallel lines. The next page had the same two lines, but connected with evenly-spaced short lines. I turned the page. The little lines were shaded in, the parallel lines more detailed. By the sixth page in, I knew what it was. I kept turning, each page bringing more detail. The gentle curve of the tracks, the gravel underneath, the rail ties not wooden, but concrete, all pock-marked and stained. After 15 pages he’d drawn in the woods on each side of the tracks. It was so precise I knew he’d been there. The last page was perfect. It showed the little path in the woods leading out onto the tracks, a well-worn shortcut leading to the baseball fields not 200 yards away.
I closed the sketchbook and pushed it across the table. When I raised my head Seth was looking right at me, dead into my eyes.
When I got into the house, I went straight to the TV in the living room and turned it to the classic movie channel. Sound was important. I needed it to fill all those empty rooms. I went to the refrigerator and fished out a large, half-empty bottle of white wine and a carton of leftover Chinese.
After warming up the Chinese, I sat on the couch and settled into a movie, something from the 1940s with a blonde actress. I guessed Veronica Lake. I tried to get into it, but couldn’t. I finished off the glass of wine and switched channels. Judgement at Nuremberg. Cheery fare. I decided to give Veronica Lake another chance.
During the school year it was easier. I’d finish up class work, then visit Seth. By the time I got home I’d be fatigued enough to eat something, scan the news, then head to bed. But school was out until after Labor Day and my tutoring clients didn’t come close to filling the gap, so I was constantly ambushed by the treachery of pauses.
I sat back and tried to guess the actors’ names. Alan Ladd was easy enough. Seth loved Shane. Another guy looked like Brian Donlevy. A lot of guys from back then looked like Brian Donlevy. I turned off the TV, picked up my wine, went out to the front porch and sat down on the steps. Just me, out there in the dark with a tepid summer breeze and the crickets and cicadas. I sat still and listened to the murmur of the neighbor’s pool filter and a dozen AC compressors humming away, a substrata of sound just beneath the chirps and rattles.
I took a small sip of wine and looked up. The stars were hidden behind a thin veil of haze. A screen door slammed and then a dog barked.
“Mom? Did you find out?”
“Find out about what?”
“What about him?”
“The boy? The shark?”
I was stalling. Watson’s fate had slipped my mind. It occurred to me that Wiley could have checked it out by himself. He was becoming alarmingly proficient with Google. But it was one of those things he wanted me to talk about, as if I were telling him a story.
“I’ll find out tomorrow,” I finally said.
“I will. Promise. Every last detail.”
“I got baseball tomorrow.”
“Yep. Practice tomorrow, game Saturday.”
“Right after practice, we’ll talk,” I said. “Is Dad picking you up?”
Wiley didn’t answer. He was pretending to peel the label off his root beer bottle, though it didn’t have a label.
“Is Dad picking you up?” I repeated.
“I was gonna walk home.” He was trying to smuggle it by me with a whisper.
“We’ve had this discussion,” I said.
Seth and I had insisted that one of us would pick Wiley up from practice, though most of his friends had begun to walk home by themselves. When one of us showed up in the car, Wiley took it as a form of abject humiliation.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, though I planned to stall for at least another six months. Seth had other ideas.
“Yes!” he said, bolting to his feet, arm back, palm flat. I reached up and swung and our palms connected. The pop was so loud the crickets and cicadas stopped their chatter for a moment, as if we’d conjured a momentary end to the world.
The sun room was empty except for an older couple sitting at a table against the far wall, a bald man in a light blue terry cloth robe staring blankly at what I took to be his wife, a tanned woman in a beige track suit. The man’s hands were in his lap. They were shaking.
I sat at the same table as before, my back to the couple and the door to the sunroom. A late afternoon light strayed in through the windows. After a few moments I sensed movement behind me. I stood up and Seth gave me a quick, contained little kiss before going to his seat. He carefully placed his sketchpad in front of him and then looked up at me with those wide, wary blue eyes. His hair looked matted and unwashed and he wore the same brown, long-sleeved sweater as the last visit. I made a mental note to speak to the staff about making sure he changed. I let a few moments pass, so he could settle in.
“Have you drawn anything new?” I asked.
He reflexively drew his hands up from his lap and placed his palms onto the sketchbook. Seth wasn’t looking at me, but down at the book. I noticed that the tips of his fingers were smudged from his sketching pencils, a sign that he’d been working. Sometimes he softened the angles and drew out shadings by gently rubbing his fingers into the lines.
“It’s the best part of my day,” I said as convincingly as I could. “When you open that book and show me something, it’s everything to me.”
“They don’t let me sleep,” the man in the terry cloth robe said loudly to his wife. I turned and looked at him. He stared back at me. “It’s been weeks. Since I slept. Weeks.”
When I turned back to Seth, the sketchbook was in front of me. He sat quietly, looking down, his hands back in his lap.
I opened the book and flipped a few pages to where I expected to find the railroad tracks, but the pages had been torn out. I ran my fingers over the jagged remains of the ripped pages, but didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t want to talk about the railroad tracks. I flipped a few more pages, and there he was. Wiley. Or multiple Wileys, dozens of sketches of his face, each about three inches wide and three inches in length and so minutely detailed they almost floated off the page. Wiley elated. Wiley ponderous. Wiley doleful. Wiley curious. Wiley bemused. Wiley melancholy. Wiley transfixed. They went on and on and just for a few seconds he was back, right there between Seth and I, a corporeal spark alighting our faces.
I wanted to reach over and take Seth’s hand in mine, to share this with him, but his hands remained planted in his lap, head bowed. I took one more look at Wiley, at all of him, then turned to the next page, which contained some preliminary sketch lines that didn’t seem to resemble anything. There was more detail on the next page, and still more on the next. The fourth page gave me an uneasy inkling, and the fifth confirmed it: the bow and stern were clear, as well as the outlined figures of the harpooner, the two men leaning over the starboard in the midst of their desperate reach and of course the boy in the water, splayed out on his back and helpless.
There were three more pages, the last with the most detail, but the face of the boy was left blank. It took me a while to stop looking at the last drawing, maybe several minutes, but I finally made myself close the book. I tried to look up at Seth, but couldn’t move my head. I felt myself tipping forward and sinking at the same time. My forehead hit the cover of the sketchbook. I stayed like that, my head on the sketchbook. I wanted to say something. I wanted to make words. I wanted to say: I want go back. But I didn’t. I sat still, silent, head mashed against the sketchbook. After a few more minutes I felt Seth’s hand on my head, his fingers running through my hair the way he used to do it, an almost absent-minded gesture when we were watching TV or curled up on the couch reading the Sunday Times. It was the first time in months that he’d touched me.
I gradually drifted into a light sleep, or something like it, a middling netherworld of semi-consciousness. All I can remember for sure is a sense of peace, of weightlessness. When I came out of it, I lifted my head and looked around. Everyone was gone. Seth, the man in the terry cloth robe and his wife.
Seth had left the sketchbook with me. He’d never done that before. I opened it to the faces of Wiley, and then back to the boy in the water, reaching out to the boat, reaching for salvation. I noticed something. Seth’s rendition was different than the painting. The two men leaning over the starboard side had reached Watson. Their hands were intertwined with his. They were pulling him away from the shark, away from the depths.
I sat where I was, alone in the sunroom, looking down at Watson, down at Wiley. I ran my fingers over the image. My fingertips came up smudged. It didn’t matter. There’d be more drawings.
I was sure of it.